"An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict,” observes military historian Max Hastings in Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. This is a profoundly depressing book but an essential corrective to those who have mined this war for tales of valor and selflessness. No doubt such instances occurred, but, as Hastings demonstrates through both anecdotes and statistics, the war turned the planet into a merciless slaughterhouse where unthinkable acts of cruelty were committed by all sides.
Instead of searching through the official papers of generals, politicians and their defenders to paint his picture of the war, Hasting relies on accounts of soldiers and civilians who were on the frontlines of suffering. He organizes his account chronologically, moving from one theater of action to the next until he has taken the reader through Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Burma, the Pacific islands, Africa, India and flashpoints in between.
With each new episode of conflict, it becomes clearer that Hastings’ title for the book is more photographic than poetic. “At one time the victim was a girl of sixteen,” recalled a nurse who tended to the civilian casualties during Germany’s 1939 bombardment of Warsaw. “She had a glorious mop of golden hair, her face was delicate as a flower, and her lovely sapphire-blue eyes were full of tears. Both her legs, up to the knees, were a mass of bleeding pulp, in which it was impossible to distinguish bone from flesh.” Elsewhere in Poland a few days later, “a hysterical old Jew” stood over the body of his wife who had been killed in an air raid and shouted, “There is no God! Hitler and the bombs are the only gods! There is no grace and pity in the world!”
Circumstances became even more grim and deadly with Germany’s invasion of Russia, where starvation and death from exposure became rampant and where enraged Russian soldiers tortured and mutilated the luckless German soldiers who fell into their hands. But the Russians were hardly more charitable toward their own. “In the course of the war,” Hastings writes, “168,000 Soviet citizens were formally sentenced to death and executed for alleged cowardice or desertion; many more were shot out of hand, without a pretence of due process.”
By the summer of 1943, the Italian army had had enough of war (although their German counterparts had not). Hastings reports that Italian soldiers surrendered to the Allied forces “ ‘in a mood of fiesta,’ as one American put it, ‘their personal possessions slung about them, filling the air with laughter and song.’ “ But their attitudes provoked a brutal response: “In two separate incidents on 14 July, an officer and an NCO of the U.S. 45th Division murdered large groups of Italians in cold blood.” One of the Americans machine-gunned 37 captives to death, while the other killed 36 via a firing squad he convened. While both offenders were court-martialed, neither was punished and the incident was hushed up. General George Patton later remarked that he regarded these two massacres of prisoners as “thoroughly justified.”
And so it goes, battle by battle, until the war ended. It is not Hastings’ aim here to compile a catalog of horrors—which this vigorously researched narrative surely is—but to deglamorize the war and rob it of its rationalizations and supposedly grand purposes. Inferno should be companion reading to Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.